The late ‘00s and early ‘10s were a time of marrying Hollywood and popular young adult novels into movies that either flopped or did really well with its target audience. Aside from the obvious Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga series that were the arguable trailblazers for this type of movie, you also had contenders like Beastly, The Book Thief, Divergent, Flipped, and The Fault in Our Stars.
The Hunger Games came out in 2012, four years after Suzanne Collins’ novel of the same name was published. The book received critical acclaim and was a financial success, so it was no surprise that, six months after the book was published, Lionsgate Entertainment (the studio that also produced The Twilight Saga) bought the rights to it.
The film series consisting of four movies finished years ago and is now available for streaming on Netflix (in certain regions only) and was a relative success, the first movie is often criticized for cutting out a lot of significant scenes and story arcs in the book. And while it’s a good movie on its own, if you read the books, you can see why book fans were annoyed that the movie could have been better if these key points were featured in the book. Here’s why.
The Hunger Games Universe
To best recap The Hunger Games, we have to explain the history behind it. MovieFlame provides a pretty in-depth explanation of the universe’s origins, but here’s a shorter explanation. The country of Panem used to be what we know as the United States of America. However, a possible combination of war and climate change led to the destruction of civilization as we know it. Since the books do not mention other countries outside of Panem, it’s assumed that the United States (or rather, the landmass of the United States that got significantly smaller thanks to rising water levels) is the only inhabited landmass in this world.
The survivors eventually established a country known as Panem. The country consisted of 12 districts that provided for one industry and a city known as the Capitol where the nation’s president lived and controlled all the other districts. It wasn’t a democratic nation, and citizens of one district were not allowed to leave their district and were expected to do their part in providing for their district’s products, most of which ended up in the Capitol.
Eventually the districts grew tired of the oppressive regime and staged an uprising against the Capitol. It was clear the rebellion was over when District 13 was bombed and apparently left no survivors. However, as punishment for their uprising, the Capitol created the Hunger Games, an annual event where one male and one female teenager from every district are brought to an arena to fight to the death. To the Capitol residents who lived in luxury, it was simply a reality TV show that entertained them. But to the rest of the districts, it was a way to instill fear as their own children were seen killed. To the President and the rest of the Panem government, it was a way to keep people in check while providing enough hope through the way a victor is publicly showered in riches and, as the name goes, never has to be hungry for the rest of their life. Prior to the beginning of the novel, the Hunger Games had been going on for 73 years.
Introducing Katniss Everdeen
At the beginning of the movie, we see Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane and Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman talking about the Hunger Games as though it were a reality show that brings people together. But the film then shifts from the lavish studio to District 12 where, in the Everdeen House, Primrose, known as “Prim” by her older sister Katniss, is terrified of being chosen for the Games now that she is old enough to join the reaping pool. Katniss assures her it’s not going to happen (which means it definitely will happen) before leaving to go get food.
In the following scene of Katniss going around District 12 (the district responsible for coal mining), we get an idea of just how poor the district is. However, the film cuts an important fact from the books: the Mockingjay pin Katniss gets isn’t just some token she picks up in the black market from Greasy Sae, but one later given to her by her best friend Madge Undersee, the daughter of the mayor. I don’t know about you, but a random pin she picks up has less meaning than one given to her friend. We later learn that this pin belonged to her aunt, Maysilee Donner, who died in the 50th Hunger Games. Take note of this, because this will be important in the next film.
She spends a moment with her other best friend Gale, briefly asking how many times his name is in the reaping pool. Fans will take this to mean tesserae, but non-book fans may have been confused about this exchange since the film doesn’t really go through it. Basically, children who are eligible for the Hunger Games reaping have their name added once every year. It’s cumulative, so a 12-year-old will only have one slip of paper with their name on it, while an 18-year-old will have seven slips of paper.
However, in poorer districts, children who are eligible to be reaped for the Hunger Games can opt to add more slips of their name in exchange for tesserae, which is more rations of grain and oil good for one year for a single person. If they want rations for other members of their family, however, they’ll have to add more slips with their name into the bowl. Katniss, a 16-year old, should only have five slips of paper at the beginning of the novel. But because she takes tesserae for herself, her mother, and Prim, she now has 20 slips and a much higher chance of getting picked. In comparison, 18-year-old Gale has 42 slips because he provides tesserae for himself, his three siblings, and mother.
Upon her return home, Katniss and Prim get ready for the reaping. The movie also glosses over Katniss’ anger for her mother and instead just shows her as someone moody and disrespectful to her mother, as a lot of teens are. While they provide some info about her resentment towards her mother before Katniss leaves for the Capitol, it’s not really well-explained. When Katniss’ father died in a mining accident, her mother broke down and practically abandoned her daughters, unable to provide for them. Katniss was very young when this happened and had very little options at the time, but managed to pull her family together until she learned how to hunt for profit. Her mother eventually healed from her trauma, but Katniss resented her mother’s weakness and never truly forgave her.
Katniss and Prim head to the reaping. We’re introduced to Effie Trinket, the Capitol’s District 12 escort for the Hunger Games, who starts the reaping by presenting a video reminding everyone of the Capitol’s might and warped idea of how the Hunger Games helps people remember the horrors of war and why they shouldn’t do it again. Based on the district citizen’s blank reaction and Effie’s emotional one, it’s clear there’s a distinct difference of how people see the Hunger Games.
Effie starts the reaping with the girls. Despite lots of older girls with more slips of paper and girls who got tesserae for themselves and their family, Prim’s single slip of paper is chosen out of all slips. Katniss, distraught at the results and knowing Prim will most likely die in the arena, steps forward and volunteers as tribute, the first volunteer of District 12. This is met with silent respect from all the citizens present. For the boys, Effie selects the name of Peeta Mellark, a boy Katniss evidently recognizes.
While we only see vague flashbacks and get a short and incomplete story from Katniss later in the movie, we learn how Peeta and Katniss know each other. Peeta has always loved Katniss since they were younger children when he heard her sing, but never once spoke to her. A few years ago, when Katniss was still struggling to provide for her family, she went around trying to sell Prim’s baby clothes while extremely hungry. Seeing her, Peeta deliberately slightly burns bread in his family’s bakery. His mother beats him since they can’t sell the bread anymore and orders him to feed it to the pigs. However, he throws the bread in Katniss’ direction, and she realizes he might have burnt it deliberately for her.
Katniss gets a few moments to say goodbye to her mother, sister, and Gale. In the books, though, she also says goodbye to Madge (who gives her the Mockingjay pin) as well as Peeta’s father.
Meeting Haymitch & Arriving in the Capitol
Peeta and Katniss are ushered into the train to take them to the Capitol to begin their two-week training before the Hunger Games. They meet the man supposed to be their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, the only Hunger Games victor in District 12. He initially assumes they’re both going to die, but when Katniss and Peeta show their fighting side, he has hope that one of them will win the Hunger Games.
Upon arriving at the Capitol, Peeta immediately tries to rile up the crowd of Capitol spectators. Haymitch is impressed, knowing that to win the Games, Katniss and Peeta need to make people like them, something that Katniss is not good at doing.
She meets Cinna, her stylist and the only Capitol person who treats her like a human being and promises to help her as much as he can. One of the first activities before the Hunger Games is the Opening Ceremony where the tributes, dressed in costumes matching their district’s main product, is presented to the president. After years of District 12 tributes dressing up as coal miners, Cinna and his co-stylist Portia dress them up in head-turning fire. It’s not the best special effects compared to what could have been done with today’s technology, but it’s clear that District 12 caught everyone’s attention.
Finally, we get a glimpse of President Snow. Because the book focuses on Katniss’ perspective, we don’t really see what happens outside the arena once the games start. However, in the films, we get to see President Snow interact with Seneca Crane, sharing his thoughts on Katniss’ actions and how it threatens to embolden people to follow her rebelliousness.
Katniss, Peeta, and the other 22 tributes must next undergo two weeks of training. Under Haymitch’s orders, they’re not allowed to show off their strengths (Katniss with her archery skills, Peeta with his actual physical strength) to the other tributes and should focus on basic survival skills. Katniss takes note of several tributes, including four Careers. These are tributes from Districts 1 and 2 (and also 4 in the books) that train from a young age to be vicious killers who then volunteer during the reaping with a higher chance of winning the Hunger Games. When she notices them laughing at Peeta’s inability to climb, she convinces him to show off his strength to prove he isn’t an easy target.
She also takes note of a girl from District 5 who she nicknames Foxface because of her appearance; Thresh, a muscular tribute from District 11; and Rue, a 12-year-old tribute who reminded her of Prim.
In the movies, when you see Katniss and Peeta’s team in their penthouse, you might notice these servants clad in red standing meekly at the side. These are Avoxes, people with their tongues cut out and forced to become servants as punishment for certain crimes. It’s never mentioned in the movies, but in the books, when Katniss and Gale were in the woods, they saw two people attempting to run from their district get taken by Peacekeepers. The woman she saw was the same Avox in the penthouse, and while she never said anything about that incident, they have a touching moment where the Avox places a hand on Katniss. Sadly, this is never featured in the movies and shows Katniss’ softer side while she is preparing for the Games.
Finally, all tributes need to show their skills to the gamemakers to be ranked. Haymitch instructs Katniss and Peeta to finally show off their talents. Katniss is last, and by the time she is presented to the gamemakers, they are too restless to watch. She misses her first shot with her bow and arrow, but when she gets a bullseye on her second, she sees that they were distracted and did not see it happen. Angered, she shoots an arrow at the apple of their roast pig. Seneca Crane is impressed and gives her a near-perfect score of 11 out of 12 (the highest even compared to the Careers), but President Snow is troubled by her.
Before the Games begin, the tributes are invited to do an interview with Caesar Flickerman. Katniss, unable to pretend to be likeable, works with Cinna to find a way to get her through the interview, using her dress to make her memorable as “The Girl on Fire.” Peeta, on the other hand, reveals that he has always loved Katniss.
Let the Games Begin
Finally, the actual Hunger Games begin. Although this is a small detail that doesn’t really affect the story, Cinna doesn’t mention the trouble he had to go through in the books to have Katniss’ Mockingjay pin approved. In the books, the gamemakers argued that the sharp pin could give Katniss an unfair advantage if she could use it as a weapon, but Cinna managed to get it approved as Katniss’ token.
A lot of things happen in the Games and, thankfully, the movie stays true to most of the book’s material. There are a lot of things that happened that catch out attention, so here are the main bits you need to know:
- Haymitch tells Katniss to run away from the start of the Games, no matter how tempted she is to run towards the cornucopia of weapons and gear. Instead, she should search for a source of water. Katniss sees a bow, but it ends up with Glimmer, the girl from District 1.
- Katniss tries to gain distance from the other tributes, but she’s too close to the edge of the arena, so the gamemakers lead her away using fire. While running, she sustains a major burn.
- She sees that Peeta has seemingly aligned himself with the Careers. Due to her high score from the gamemakers, the Careers are targeting her and chases her up a tree.
- Haymitch influences sponsors to send Katniss burn ointment. The next day, Katniss drops a trackerjacker hive onto the Careers, killing Glimmer and sending everyone else running. Katniss takes the bow from Glimmer’s corpse, but she is stung by trackerjacker venom and hallucinates.
- Rue takes care of Katniss until she wakes and they pair up as allies. Together, they conspire to destroy the Careers’ stockpile of food and weapons. They’re successful, but Rue and Marvel, the boy from District 1, are killed.
- Katniss mourns Rue and her actions following Rue’s death inspire a riot in District 11. Seneca is worried how President Snow will see her reaction and the district’s response, and Haymitch convinces him to play on the star-crossed lovers’ arc.
- Seneca announces to the remaining tributes that there can be two victors as long as they come from the same district. Katniss finds Peeta hidden near the river badly injured, and she takes him to a cave for shelter.
- The remaining tributes at this point are Katniss and Peeta, Careers Cato and Clove from District 2, Foxface, and Thresh from District 10. Seneca announces that each of them need something to survive and they each have kits waiting for them in the cornucopia. Peeta asks Katniss not to go, but while Peeta is asleep, she leaves.
- Katniss is ambushed by Clove, who tortures her physically and mentally with Rue’s death. Thresh hears this and kills her but spares Katniss in memory of Rue. Katniss returns to Peeta with medicine that heals both their wounds.
- Foxface is killed when she steals the berries Peeta had collected, not knowing they were poisonous Nightlock.
- While preparing for the end of the Games, the gamemakers prepare a wolf-like creature (in the books, they are giant dog monsters with eyes resembling those of the fallen tributes) for the finale. The creature kills Thresh (in the books, Cato kills him) and causes Peeta and Katniss to run and climb up the cornucopia. Cato attacks them and nearly kills Peeta, but Katniss shoots him off the cornucopia and down to the creatures. Katniss spares him the agony and provides a mercy kill by shooting him.
- Seneca announces a rule change stating that only one tribute can win. Peeta offers to kill himself, but Katniss realizes they need a tribute to win. She suggests they both kill themselves by Nightlock, but Seneca stops them and declares both of them winners.
Katniss and Peeta are given a ceremony to celebrate their win as the victors of the 74th Hunger Games. While President Snow is all smiles as he crowns both of them victors, Haymitch warns her that she made a lot of enemies in the Capitol for defying them. Her actions to deny the Capitol the satisfaction of forcing two lovers to kill one of them serves as an inspiration that if one girl can walk away without repercussions, so can they. We then see Seneca Crane ordered to kill himself by eating the same berries he placed in the arena.
The film ends with Katniss and Peeta on a train back to District 12. Though we don’t see it in the film, Katniss realizes she’ll never be able to get off the metaphorical train as she needs to be careful not to further anger President Snow, who watches them closely.
Creating Movie Adaptations from Books
Unlike original films that aren’t based on books and you take what you can get, the problem with adapting books into film is that while on its own, the movie can be pretty good, if you’re going to remove certain key points in the books, fans are bound to notice. Sure, touching an Avox’s hand won’t make a huge difference when you look at the bigger picture, but I find that when you take away the little things and nuances, you’re robbing the character a chance to show their personality.
The point of Katniss’s personality is to show that despite her aloof exterior she claims will put off the audience, she is actually a good person who doesn’t wait around to be told to do the right thing. This is a key piece of her character, one that is highlighted in Mockingjay. But because the studio thinks the film has no time for these subtle moments, we see less about Katniss and don’t really see more of her character. And as such, we don’t really see small reasons to make her likable.
Also, while The Hunger Games series isn’t as immersive as the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones series where there’s so much lore in the universe aside from the ones we see in the film or books, I feel like more people would treat it as such if the film explored the different parts of the universe instead of just glossing over it. Instead of people asking what their Hogwarts House could be, if The Hunger Games could also put more attention on the world of Panem, we could have people asking what District they would be in if they were in that universe.
Don’t get me wrong: The Hunger Games was a good movie. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have started the film series strong enough to carry on until the end of the book series (such as other young adult film adaptations that didn’t get sequels even if their book did or series like Divergent that just couldn’t pull the series along until the final movie). But as a fan of the books, I’d have liked to see more of Panem lore focused on in the movie. If the film could stray away from the book’s limited point of view, it could have also spared more time trying to immerse the audience into the world as well.